The SEC’s two major matchups give us the weekend we’ve been waiting for in college football
This is the weekend you’ve been waiting for in college football.
We’re slowly getting to a point where all Power 5 football is going to be played, and we’ll be back to something resembling a normal college football schedule in a world that has been anything but.
Saturday’s two biggest matchups — Texas A&M at Alabama and Auburn at Georgia — will definitely hit those normal vibes for college football fans. The noon ET games will serve as your appetizer for the gourmet servings of top-10 SEC football in the afternoon and evening.
The Crimson Tide bring back running back Najee Harris and wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. Bama also has an experienced offensive line, with four starters back from 2019, and a defense stacked with players who will likely end up playing on Sundays.
The Aggies are ranked No. 13 but didn’t look the part last weekend in a 17-12 victory over Vanderbilt. Kellen Mond was expected to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC but had an average game. If you’re an A&M fan, you had better hope he was just knocking off some rust. Otherwise, it could be a long afternoon in Tuscaloosa.
In the evening, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry gives us seventh-ranked Auburn visiting No. 4 Georgia. The two are meeting as top-10 teams for the sixth time in the rivalry’s history, with Georgia having won the most recent — the 2017 SEC championship game.
The Bulldogs come into this game not knowing exactly who they are on offense. Quarterback D’Wan Mathis had a poor first half against Arkansas before coach Kirby Smart went with third-stringer Stetson Bennett IV, who helped UGA pull away. USC transfer JT Daniels has been cleared to play and could start Saturday, but we still don’t know what’s going on in the quarterback room at Georgia — and Smart is not going to divulge any information on it.
Meanwhile, Tigers quarterback Bo Nix looked solid in Auburn’s opener against Kentucky, and last season against Georgia, Nix threw the ball 50 times for 245 yards and one touchdown.
In the latest SP+ rankings, Georgia and Auburn have the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked defenses, respectively. This will please those fans who claim to love a good, low-scoring, defensive struggle.
Even if you have no rooting interest in these two games, they are still must-watch events. The variety of teams in college football is part of why we love the sport, but nothing beats top-10 matchups.
We’ll see the Big Ten and Pac-12 come back later on this fall, but these two games really have us feeling as though football is already back in full force.
Game Day Q&A
The Pac-12 announced last week it would be playing a seven-game football slate starting in November. The announcement came after a summer that included Pac-12 athletes organizing for racial equality and COVID-19 protections.
We caught up with UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia on what it was like to watch other Power 5 schools play, and where the #WeAreUnited group stands on taking the field later this fall.
ESPN: What were those first few weeks of the football season like for you, watching everybody else play while not knowing if you guys would be on the field this fall?
Ogbonnia: It was definitely crazy, and almost sad to a point where you’re sitting there wondering to yourself why couldn’t the health and safety be a lot better in our conferences to play. But it was almost like being injured, or for whatever reason, everything is out of your control. At the same time, I also understood that it was coronavirus, and coronavirus had affected a lot of different things all over the world, and halted a lot of different things. Football really isn’t exempt from that, so I had an understanding there.
Eventually you’re kind of just like, it’s not something I can dwell on, or beat myself up about because there are other things people aren’t going to get to do that are a lot worse than not playing this season. So I just tried to look at it from a big-picture standpoint.
ESPN: When and how did you find out that you guys would be playing this fall?
Ogbonnia: I knew we were gonna play once we knew we were going to have everyday testing. In my mind — I didn’t know exactly when it was going to start, if it was going to be November or December, but I did know we were going to play this fall. We had the daily testing, which resolved a lot of things. It was one of the biggest hurdles we had into playing. I didn’t necessarily think that the restrictions at the state or local level were going to hold us back. I think that was more in place because we didn’t have the required protections like the NFL has for us to be exempt from those restrictions or for them to be lifted. But once we got protocols in place, and those decisions were being made, I felt like we were going to play.
ESPN: Where do things stand with the players of Pac-12 United? Are there still any reservations about playing?
Ogbonnia: I think that concern [of playing during a pandemic] is always going to be there regardless of what kind of protections are put up. I think guys do feel that a lot more protections are put up than before. I’m not exactly sure how many more protocols, but I do know they’ve expanded testing and are heart monitoring, and those were the two biggest concerns — the myocarditis and just the availability of testing, and the equal testing of all schools within the Pac-12.
From an exploitative standpoint, those concerns are there and always will be. Nothing has changed. We were being exploited before the pandemic, we’ve always been exploited, so it’s not like that has changed. It’s not going to change until negotiations are made regarding compensation, NIL [name, image and likeness rights], and health insurance. Those concerns are looming as per usual with guys.
When you’re in quarantine, you have a lot of time to think about what’s going on especially in the political and racial climate. You kind of have time to detach from that and focus on something that you love to do. I think that’s kind of where — I can only really speak for myself and you know, the vibe I’ve gotten from people, I think that’s kind of where people are headed — they’re very exhausted about this fight we’ve had to undertake in general.
It’s unfortunate we had to have this fight in the first place, it should have never happened in the first place in terms of players having to try to fight for their own health and safety, and economic rights. It’s unfortunate we don’t have representation. … It definitely shows how much representation is needed, how much we don’t have basic rights that all Americans generally have. It exposes that part of it that we even had to go to these lengths to have our voices heard.
Buy or Sell
Oklahoma State (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Kansas)
We saw Oklahoma lose to Kansas State and Texas require a miracle to get past Texas Tech last week, so does that leave the Cowboys as the next-best option to win the Big 12?
I think Oklahoma is still the team to beat despite last Saturday’s loss. Texas had far too much trouble with Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State has yet to impress — though the return of quarterback Spencer Sanders could prove me wrong.
To clarify, the Pokes are the *next* best option. Oklahoma is probably still the better team, but while there is room to critique Mike Gundy’s offense thus far — and without his starting QB, even that is a bit unfair — let’s not overlook the defense. Holding West Virginia to 13 is impressive, and the Cowboys are allowing just 4.53 yards per play so far. In a league where passing attacks get the headlines, Oklahoma State’s defense — and the secondary in particular — could be an intriguing recipe for success.
Florida State (4 p.m. ET Saturday vs. Jacksonville State)
Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but let’s assume the Seminoles can win this one against an FCS foe. Does coach Mike Norvell win another game this season?
As bad as Florida State has been, I think Norvell will come across a game that not even the Seminoles could lose.
Are we gluttons for punishment here, backing Florida State? Norvell has been put in an impossible spot, but how he convinces his team to keep fighting will tell us a lot about what the long-term future at FSU might look like. No, the Seminoles are not going to be good this season, but scrapping for another win or two might tell us a lot about 2021 and beyond.
LSU (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Vanderbilt)
TOL crew reacts to LSU’s loss vs. Hail State
The Thinking Out Loud crew breaks down their reactions to then-No. 6 LSU’s shocking 44-34 loss to No. 16 Mississippi State in Week 1.
The defending champ looked like a shell of its former self against Mississippi State. Was that a one-off blip after a tumultuous offseason or should we anticipate real regression from the Tigers?
I’m buying regression. I would also say that it is all right if LSU regresses — I mean, how do you top last season? That was one of the best college football teams we’ve ever seen, and whatever happens this season is bound to look bad in comparison. It just might end up being worse than any of us actually expected.
The opener was something of a perfect storm for LSU. The long layoff, the massive departures, the absence of cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. … and it is not as if LSU is the first team to struggle with a Mike Leach offense. There’s still plenty of talent on this team. Will it mirror 2019? It might be decades before we see a team do that. But it’s too soon to think the Tigers aren’t going to be a competitor for the SEC title, either.
Oklahoma (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Iowa State)
The Sooners lost to K-State last season but still won the Big 12 and earned a playoff berth. With eight more games to go, is it too soon to write off Oklahoma?
Spencer Rattler is still good, despite his three interceptions (one of which wasn’t his fault). Oklahoma’s offense is going to be better in most of its worst-case scenarios. And despite giving up more points than you’d prefer, the Sooners are going to outscore opponents more often than not.
Texas got lucky on Saturday, and Oklahoma was incredibly unlucky. That happens sometimes, but the Sooners are still the class of the Big 12. Remember, OU actually outgained Kansas State by 117 yards. Teams that do that win 94% of the time. It’s not fair to call the outcome a fluke because it has now happened twice, but I’m not convinced anyone else in the league has K-State’s magic.
UCF (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday vs. Tulsa)
Dillon Gabriel has back-to-back games with 400 passing yards and four touchdowns, and the Knights have won each of their first two games by at least three touchdowns. Is UCF the best of the Group of 5?
Gabriel slings 4 TDs in UCF’s win over East Carolina
Dillon Gabriel throws for 408 yards and four touchdowns as the Knights take down the Pirates 51-28.
We’ve seen some good and fun Group of 5 teams so far this season, but none has been as convincing as UCF. That could certainly change as the season goes along, but right now I’m placing confidence in the Knights.
At the risk of going too far down the Power 6 rabbit hole, I’m a believer in the depth of the American Athletic Conference this season. Yes, UCF is very good — and quite possibly the best outside the Power 5 — but in the Knights’ league alone we’ve seen a grand total of two games from Temple, Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati. Add in a 3-0 start for Louisiana and SMU and a 2-0 mark for BYU (not to mention the eventual arrival of the Mountain West) and there’s actually a lot of quality outside the Power 5. Forced to choose today, I’m going with BYU.
What to watch for
How much downtime is too much?
Will Healy had to tell his players last Friday that, once again, they wouldn’t be playing.
That is two weeks and two canceled games for the Charlotte 49ers, first because of COVID-19 concerns within their own locker room, and now because of what ultimately proved to be misdiagnosed test results at Georgia State.
For a coach whose entire philosophy is based on team-building and personal interaction, this was just the latest blow in a monthslong slog of preparation for games that might never be played. For Healy, football is supposed to be fun, and quite simply, this wasn’t any fun at all.
“I knew if I could feel it, our players could feel it,” Healy said.
So Healy came up with an idea. Each position coach took his unit out for dinner Friday night to lift some spirits. The coaches surveyed the players and asked a big question: There’s no game Saturday, so what do you want to do?
“I was like, I’ve got to do something to just get back to guys enjoying being around each other and having fun playing football and building some camaraderie,” Healy said.
The answer? Whiffle ball.
So game day went from taking on Georgia State to a whiffle ball tournament, a 7-on-7 football game between coaches (that included a touchdown run by Healy’s dad) and a kickball showdown among players.
At North Carolina, the circumstances were similar. The Tar Heels had a scheduled off week following their game against Charlotte being nixed, which left coach Mack Brown with a lot of time on his hands. As Brown pointed out this week, it was the longest in-season layoff for the Heels since 1952 — when Brown was 1 — amid a polio outbreak.
Brown’s solution was to spend last Saturday on the practice field, letting the younger players scrimmage and having quarterback Sam Howell call the plays.
“We’ve actually had two good weeks of practice,” Brown said. “Does it still hold true that you improve the most between your first and second game when there’s three weeks between them? I think probably not. We’re completely starting over.”
Across the country, coaches have had to get creative as long stretches without games piled up.
Two weeks ago, Houston coach Dana Holgorsen was overjoyed that his team had, at the last minute, scheduled a showdown with Baylor, saying he had no clue how he’d have handled another week of practice without a game. So what happened? Baylor had to cancel. Then North Texas was forced to cancel the following week. Houston now doesn’t have a game scheduled until Oct. 8 — nearly a full month after Holgorsen said he was out of ideas for practice.
“It’s 2020, and we’re used to this crap,” Holgorsen later lamented
North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET vs. Boston College) gets back on the field Saturday, as does Charlotte, which will visit Florida Atlantic (4 p.m. ET), a team that hasn’t played a game yet amid its own postponements and cancellations.
Such is life in the test-by-test world of college football in 2020. In the end, Healy said, he’s OK with the unknown. But he worries that, as this process continues, there’s a real toll being taken on his players’ mental health, and fun afternoons playing whiffle ball can do only so much to help.
“That’s what I struggle with: What do you tell your team and what can you promise your team?” Healy said. “I finally just told them I can’t promise anything other than if we continue to get better during these crazy times, we’ll be really good by the end of the year. And if we take days off because we don’t know when we’re playing, we will be caught off guard when we finally do play a game.”
Who’s at QB for Georgia and Virginia Tech?
The Hokies were without 23 players (and two coaches) in their opener against NC State last week, but it didn’t matter as they cruised to an impressive victory. The question now is whether Hendon Hooker, the de facto starting QB who missed the game with an undisclosed medical “scare,” according to coach Justin Fuente, will get back on the field. In his absence last week, backup Braxton Burmeister looked sharp in a limited role, completing 7 of 11 throws for 106 yards, while his backup, Quincy Patterson II, tossed two touchdowns on just six passes. Both QBs had strong games rushing as well.
Breaking down QB battle for Auburn vs. Georgia
The Thinking Out Loud crew shares what they are expecting from the No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 7 Auburn matchup, while assessing UGA’s QB situation.
Who gets the nod for playing time Saturday against Duke? That’s probably an easier question than the task ahead at Georgia for Smart, who gets Daniels back for this week’s showdown against Auburn, but might be inclined to give Mathis, last weekend’s starter, another shot or hand the job to Bennett, who saved the day in relief duty against Arkansas and finished with 211 yards and two TDs. Both the Hokies and Bulldogs have conference title aspirations, but neither have a clear view of the most important position on the field after their first game.
Can LSU rebound?
Here’s a fun bit of trivia provided by Ralph Russo of the Associated Press: What do QB K.J. Costello‘s record-setting passing day for Mississippi State and RB Melvin Gordon‘s record-setting 408-yard rushing performance for Wisconsin in 2014 have in common? That would be Bo Pelini, who was coaching the defense in both games. For all the LSU departures this offseason, the one that might’ve gotten the least attention was defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, largely because Pelini’s arrival — and $2.3 million contract — suggested a smooth transition. Can Pelini fix all that ailed LSU in its opener? Well, the good news is Saturday’s opponent, Vandy, isn’t bringing the same firepower as Mississippi State. Where the Bulldogs put up 623 passing yards on Pelini’s D last weekend, Vandy has barely eclipsed that total in its past five games combined.
Air Force kicks off
The number of quirks and oddities in this season’s schedule is vast, but it’s tough to argue that anyone’s will play out quite like Air Force’s. The Mountain West postponed its season in early August, but Air Force was allowed to still play games against the other service academies, setting the Falcons up for a two-game schedule kicking off Saturday against Navy. But even that has been anything but routine.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said it didn’t really come into focus until about three weeks ago.
Start with the roster: Air Force has 32 players from last season’s team who could have returned for 2020 but didn’t, meaning a trimmed-down depth chart. Then turn to the prep: The Falcons worked for weeks to schedule a warm-up game before Navy but weren’t able to get it done. Then add in the Mountain West’s flip-flop back to playing fall football, which likely starts on Oct. 24 for Air Force. That means the Falcons will have waited a month past their originally scheduled opener, played one game against an archrival, then waited three more weeks to get their next game.
“It’s quite, quite different,” Calhoun said, laughing. “We want to play as many football games as we possibly can. We want that for our guys however that is. Hopefully we’ll go 130 years until it has to happen again.”
Leach speaks on challenges of facing Arkansas’ defense
Mississippi State coach Mike Leach talks about the aggression and speed the Razorbacks’ defense plays with.
What does Leach do for an encore?
Mississippi State has won seven of its past eight against Arkansas, and during that stretch has hung 50 or more on the Razorbacks three times and scored 40 or more in two others while its quarterbacks have totaled 23 passing touchdowns and just four picks. And all of that was before Leach and Costello arrived. Good luck with that, Arkansas.
Players to watch
Lyles: Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
Mond completed 17 of 28 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt, which is fine. But given it was against the Commodores, Mond has to be much better Saturday at Alabama.
Hale: Iowa State QB Brock Purdy
It has hardly been the start to the season Purdy might have expected. Considered a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate and a possible first-round NFL draft pick just a few weeks ago, these are Purdy’s numbers through two games: 356 passing yards, one TD. But let’s flash back to last season, when Purdy faced an Oklahoma team fresh off a shocking loss to K-State (sound familiar?). He turned in arguably the best performance of his career, accounting for six touchdowns in a 42-41 loss to the Sooners. If Purdy and the Cyclones want to get back some of their offseason mojo, it has to start Saturday.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: Texas Tech vs. Kansas State
Each team played in one of the most interesting games in the Big 12 last weekend. The Red Raiders had a 99.8% win probability when they were up 56-41 with 3 minutes, 13 seconds left against Texas before allowing the Longhorns to come back and win 63-56 in overtime. The Wildcats, on the other hand, delivered one of the bigger college football upsets of the season, beating No. 3 Oklahoma 38-35. K-State’s victory came after its season-opening loss to Arkansas State. Let’s just hope we see a lot of points.
Hale: Memphis at SMU
If we get anything close to last season’s wild 54-48 Memphis win, this will be must-see TV. SMU is off to another terrific start, one of just five teams to reach the 3-0 mark so far. Memphis looked rusty in its opener, but the victory over Arkansas State continues to look more impressive after the Red Wolves topped K-State a week later, and K-State went on to beat Oklahoma. But how will the Tigers look after a long layoff? Brady White and Shane Buechele might be the two best QBs outside the Power 5, and last season’s shootout included nearly 1,100 yards of offense.
Nix excited for one of SEC’s deepest rivalries
Though it’s much earlier than usual, No. 7 Auburn QB Bo Nix joins The Paul Finebaum Show and discusses the anticipation of playing No. 4 Georgia in Week 2.
Lyles: Auburn over Georgia
The Bulldogs looked downright bad on offense last week — and against Arkansas of all teams. USC transfer quarterback Daniels has finally been cleared to play, and Smart (unsurprisingly) has said he’ll wait to name a starter. But no matter who plays quarterback, he is going to have to be much better against an Auburn defense that is going to give Georgia much more trouble than Arkansas’ did. If Auburn plays more consistently on offense than it did against Kentucky, the Tigers will have this one.
If the first month of the season has taught us anything so far, it should probably be that we take nothing for granted. But coming off a week that included stunning upsets by Kansas State and Mississippi State, Week 5’s slate really doesn’t appear to have much in the way of a particularly enticing underdog. But if we’ve got to find one — and we’re not going to settle for a team getting just a couple points — we’ll hop aboard the Lane Train. Kiffin’s Ole Miss team clearly showed it can move the ball in the opener against Florida, and Kentucky shouldn’t challenge the Rebels’ D the way Gators quarterback Kyle Trask did. Do we love the pick? No. But when has Kiffin ever let anyone down? OK, don’t answer that.